Sophie Aldred has proven to be one of the most popular of Doctor Who assistants. The feisty sidekick of Sylvester McCoy was different from many who preceded her, and she’s very popular on the Doctor Who convention circuit.
Fortunately, she managed to squeeze in time for this interview…
Can we start with your pre-Doctor Who days: I read that you started out in childern’s theatre?
Yeah, I did. Doctor Who was my first telly job, and before that I did a lot of theatre in education, children’s theatre. It was out of the back of a van, going round schools. And then eventually I worked my way up, and I was at Polka Children’s Theatre, which is a very well known and well respected children’s theate company in Wimbledon. And I did a tour with them of The Opera of Hansel & Gretel, by Engelbert Humperdinck. Not the one we know, but a classical composer…
Would you have preferred the one we know to have written it?
Er, actually, that might have been quite fun really! But it was all great fun anyway. Hard work, but a great education. And prior to that, I got my Equity card singing around working men’s clubs, round Manchester.
So which was the tougher audience? The kids, or the working mens’ clubs?
Well yeah, pretty much similar actually. The working mens’ clubs were an education for middle class me from Blackheath, but the children were … well, one panto I did, which was a dodgy panto out of the back of a van, they were quite something. They’d been given chocolate bars and selection boxes, and they used to throw chocolate at us! So we used to gather them up and eat them afterwards, because we weren’t being paid very much. That was our sustenance!
Did they literally throw the boxes at you, then?!
No, not the boxes! I was the villain’s assistant and baby bear, and I was the designated van driver. And I used to set up the PA as well. It was my job as the villain’s assistant to go round with the broom and sweep up all these bars of chocolate! Put them in a box for later.
That must have made you very popular!
So how did you get from there to Doctor Who?
Well I actually got myself into musicals. I got myself an agent and she was putting me up for various things. And there was a big open audition for a musical, which was Fiddler on the Roof, up in Manchester. Topol was reprising his role from the film, and I went up for it, and to my great amazement got a part in it, in the back row of the chorus, and as understudy toone of the daughters.
And then my agent rang while I was up there and said ‘I’ve put you up for a role in Doctor Who’, and everybody sort of said ‘ha ha, very funny’. And there was actually a guy in the show who was playing the Rabbi, and he had been in Doctor Who many years ago. John Scott Martin. He’d been the inside of Daleks and very monsters.
So I asked him a bit about it, and it was all a bit of a laugh it seems. I went down and did the audition, and thought fat lot of good that was, as I’d never been in front of a TV camera, and never been in a TV studio. I didn’t expect anything. And then I got a recall to my great surprise again. So I went down to London, begrudging the train fare, because I was on a chorus member’s salary.
Anyway, I met the producer, John Nathan Turner, and I met him for probably about ten to fifteen minutes, then got back on the train and thought that was probably a waste of time. And a couple of weeks later found that not only had I got this job for three episodes, but that Bonnie Langford was thinking of leaving, and would I consider taking over the role of the assistant? So it was amazing, it was just like you see it happening in a film or something!
And did you have much familiarity with the show beforehand?
As a child I used to watch it, of course. Everybody did. But I hadn’t really realised that it was still going when I got the part. I went to University around the time of Peter Davison, and stopped watching it around then. I knew about Tegan, it was such a big show still. But I didn’t really know anything about Colin’s era, for example.
It was quite a surprise to see it was still running, but I did have very fond memories of it as a child.
So who was your Doctor?
My Doctor? Well, we didn’t have a TV at first, so it should have been Patrick Troughton. But I don’t think I ever watched any of his. Jon Pertwee was my real Doctor. And then into Tom Baker.
And I remember that we were just going away on holiday when Jon Pertwee turned into Tom Baker, and I remember it really vividly. We were driving through the Kent countryside, and my mum was reading the paper. She said ‘oooh, they’re going to change Doctor Who. It’s going to be Tom Baker next’. And I remember being absolutely outraged. How dare they change the Doctor! How dare they turn Jon Pertwee into Tom Baker! He’ll be rubbish!
I was proved wrong of course. But that was a very vivid memory, and the show was catching the headlines, even in those days.
When you got the role, and moved onto the show for the first time, was time always the limiting factor? And was it easy to get into the swing of it?
For a show about a Time Lord it really is quite ironic really that there’s never any time. It was quite difficult, but Bonnie was a brilliant, brilliant help. She was really generous, and really showed me the ropes. Everybody was great, really, they pulled together and helped me through.
And I loved the medium of TV from the first moment that I got into a studio. I really enjoyed the technicality of it, and working out where the cameras were. Which was my best side and all that! But most of all I really loved working with Sylvester. It was fantastic; we hit it off straight away and the rest of the team were just fantastic.
It did seem on screen very quickly that there was a real click with Sylvester McCoy.
Yeah. It was one of those lucky things really. We just very much got on from the moment we met. We shared a similar-ish background; I was an ex-radical feminist student with hairy armpits, and he really liked that. A bit rebellious, and he’d come from this very subversive background with his Ken Campbell roadshow. And don’t forget that Margaret Thatcher was our Prime Minister, which we weren’t very happy with at the time. So it was all a real bonding process.
And how was working with John Nathan Turner? There are all sorts of reports of what he was like to work for.
He was an amazing man.
At first, it was awful. I really had a tough time. But then I realised that he was testing me. He didn’t really understand me, because he came from the world of Joan Collins-ish type glam, the Kate O’Maras of this world, and Bonnie Langford. And he didn’t really understand at all why I didn’t want to shave my armpits, y’know. Although he had this fantastic instinct for the right thing, and I owe my later career to him.
But he really was a character, and it ended up after a couple of stories that we got to understand each other. We ended up great friends.
And looking back, he saved Doctor Who then. He was going through a terrible time with the fans who were baying for his blood, and what nobody realised at the time was that if it hadn’t been for him, it would have been cancelled a long time before.
So yeah, he was a wonderful, larger than life character, with his Hawaiian shirts. He was always one for a party. He always used to say for our afternoon tea break on location, he’d take a puff of his cigarette and say “Right, time for tea and a tart!” He just had these little sayings that he loved. I was very fond of John in the end.
On your second story on the show, you got to fight the Daleks in Remembrance of the Daleks. And I don’t think it’s being unkind to say that on screen they were looking a little bit ropey at that stage going over cobbles. How were they close up, if we were seeing them bobbling around like that?
I was quite surprised at how unfrightening they were in real life, I have to say! But I had to remember that I was 24, and when I’d seen them on television I was scared of them when I was five, six, seven. And they were still as scary as ever. The kids who lived in my street at the time were absolutely terrified in case I’d bring a Dalek home with me. I think it’s one of those things where you had to be a bit kind and realise that it was actually originated as a children’s programme, and designed to scare children!
It must have been great to get to a Dalek story very early on?
Oh, it made me feel like I was a real assistant. Because with the Daleks – and I was lucky enough to have the Cybermen as well – I thought ‘yes! I’ve arrived!’. I am a Doctor Who assistant!
And they really let you smack seven shades out of them as well?
Yeah, well that was great. Because nobody’s done that before or since. I think that’s going to go on my gravestone, actually. I beat up a Dalek with a baseball bat! My absolute claim to fame, and I was very proud of that moment!
And the funny thing was that I was always the smallest in my class! I was always being called ‘shrimp’. I was much, much smaller than anyone else. So having that glorious line, “who are you calling small?”, and then smacking a Dalek was a great thing for me to have!
You said that nobody’s done it before, and nobody’s done it since. But then your character was a little different from many of the assistants, because they really rounded Ace, and dug into her own story?
Yeah, it was amazing looking back.
I must admit when I first got the part I thought hang on a minute, I’m not a screamer, I’m a bit of a tomboy, always was. I was a bit surprised. My concept of a Doctor Who girl was that you screamed a lot and ran around quarries in unsuitable footwear. Of course you fell over and twisted your ankle, because you had high heels on.
So when I was allowed to wear Doc Martens and not scream, it was a complete breath of fresh air for me. I think that’s down a lot to the script editor at the time, Andrew Cartmel. He was young, had his finger on the pulse, and wanted to try new thing. He and the writer of that first story that I did, Ian Briggs, came up with this character, and John went with it. Which was amazing really, because it was a departure for Doctor Who.
The assistant has been a narrative device as much as anything else before. But in your case, there’s The Curse of Fenric in particular …
Yeah, I was going to say that. And also, it was thanks to Sylvester. Because he had such a lack of ego about it. Some people would say that it became a double act rather than the Doctor and the assistant, and it certainly was in that story. It was all about Ace’s backstory.
But he was generous enough to let me get on with it, and realised that it would be very interesting to have this different kind of relationship with the assistant. In that story in particular, he has to betray his assistant, and he hurts her in order for the greater good.
The great thing was that I thought it brought a really different dimension to Ace’s character.
Was this something you knew was coming, or did you find out when you picked the script up?
I had no idea it was coming! We’d talked about her character and the writers really seemed to enjoy writing for Ace. We had young, interesting writers. Ben Aaronovitch [Remembrance of the Daleks, Battlefield] was really into the character of Ace, and so yeah, it was discussed beforehand. But I hadn’t got an idea that it would be all about Ace, if you like.
When the cancellation of the show came, was it as stark as it was reported?
I had no idea it was coming. We recorded them in a different order to the transmission, as often happens. So we finished on Ghost Light, which was not transmitted last. We all expected to meet up with each other next year and everything, and it was while I was working on Corners, Sylvester who rang me and told me the news.
It was a real shock, and a real disappointment. I mean I was very lucky, because I’d always been lucky enough to get plenty of other work. It wasn’t so much that I’d be out of a job. It was just that I’d had a fantastic time on Doctor Who as everybody does. I just think it was a real loss – to the nation as well, without putting too fine a point on it!
I’m so delighted that it’s had this amazing resurrection!
In retrospect, do you think the powers that be knew it was coming? Because it did just end on that moment at the end of Survival, with Ace and the Doctor walking into the distance? Someone knew…
Oh yes. I think it had been discussed for a long time. But it’s a good thing that we didn’t know about it, because it would have been incredibly demoralising to know we were doing our last one.
Looking back, it couldn’t have happened a better way. I think John Nathan Turner knew, and Andrew Cartmel knew. They rescripted the final scene in Survival, with a really beautiful speech actually. Which sums up Sylvester’s Doctor. And we walked through a bush into the sunset.
Sylvester McCoy has talked about how he never realised when he took the job on that it had a pension scheme, which I thought was lovely. But you’re active yourself now in the Big Finish productions, and the convention circuit. Do you jump into these things wholeheartedly?
Oh, absolutely! Any excuse to get that jacket on again, metaphorically! I really love doing the Big Finish audios, and they’re fantastic products as well. They’ve taken the characters into new dimensions really.
You’ve got a couple of kids now, too. They must be really impressed?
It’s funny. They’ve not actually seen Doctor Who, because they’re still a bit young. But they do know about it. They come to conventions with me. My older son is very aware of the fact that some people know who I am.
For instance, we were on a train and a little boy got on with a case with a new Dalek on the side of it. My eldest was sitting there, and suddenly said in a very loud voice “Sophie! Sophie Aldred! What was it like when you were working on Doctor Who?”. So he was trying to tell people, without actually telling them, that his mum was in Doctor Who. I thought that was really great! A tad embarrassing, too!
To be fair, he’s one of the few people who can say it!
Yeah, that’s right!
When you go around the conventions, there’s a real affection for some of the 80s Doctor Who in retrospect. What kind of questions do you get asked?
Well, they all want to know the usual. What’s your favourite monster, and what’s your favourite story. And the answers are Cybermen and The Curse of Fenric. And I’m surprised that a lot of them are brainwashed into liking the classic Who better than the new series. Because I must say that I absolutely love the new series, I think it’s fantasic. I’m a bit of a Doctor Who fan now, and I always want to talk about the new series, but nobody will talk to me about that! They all want to know about the classic series.
I’m a true Whovian now!
If the call came through, as it did with Lis Sladen, and they wanted you to get involved, is that something that youd jump at?
Ooh, yes! I’d love to do that. Fantastic. But I think Lis did so brilliantly, and did such a great job for us assistants. Her storyline was so wonderful, it had me crying at the end. She sort of said it for all of us.
And I think it’s fantastic that she’s got this Sarah-Jane spin-off series. Because when else have we had this children’s role model - I mean I’m not being rude when I say she’s not as young as she was, I’m sure she won’t mind me saying, but what a fantastic role model for children!
Around the time Doctor Who finished, you did lots of childrens TV too. I remember you in Corners, but you’re popping up in repeats on CBeebies too!
Yeah, they’ve just reshown – which I’m delighted about – Melvin and Maureen’s Music-a-Grams. It was one of the weirder shows that I did, and my husband believes it’s my best work. It was really a fantastically fun programme to do.
And I did all sorts of childrens’ TV, which funnily enough is what I always wanted to do. I always wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter, but I ended up in Doctor Who instead! I always had a real love of childrens’ presenting, and I was lucky enough to do that and have an acting career alongside it.
Am I right in thinking you were going off and doing religious programming too?
Yeah, I did do a bit of that. I did a bit of religious programming, I did an ITV countryside programme as well which was great. I did Saturday morning childrens’ stuff, interviewing pop stars and the like. I did a bit of everything. It’s amazing, I’ve had this very eclectic career… in fact, I’ve never read the news!
Was it a deliberate choice to do something different, though?
Not really because I was already doing Corners, and I did the two concurrently for two or three years. So I was lucky enough to have that already in place. Really, when Doctor Who finished, I’ve always taken whatever job was offered. I’ve never really had a plan. Sylvester’s the same; I love working, I always enjoy whatever I did. So I’ve never really had any ambition other than where the next job takes me?
Because you went back to theatre too?
Yeah, I did a West End musical called Lust, where I played the seemingly innocent young country wife who actually wasn’t very innocent at all. I did Daisy Pulls It Off, and a tour of that. Several things. So really, I enjoy doing whatever’s offered.
Is that the ethos you work to now?
Well, in the last few years I’ve wanted to be near home, so I’ve really concentrated on my voice over work. It means I don’t have to get all made up, or wash my hair before I get to work! I may feel like going back in front of the camera at some stage, maybe somebody needs to tempt me to do it!
And finally, are you tempted to write another book?
No! That was such hard work! I enjoy writing but a) I don’t have time now, and b) I find it like a constant essay crisis hanging over me! So I’m not as keen on the writing as the acting!
Do you have anything coming up on the immediate horizon?
No. I’m a bit wherever the wind takes me. I’m taking the family over to the Gallifrey convention, and then we’re off on a Doctor Who cruise. After that, who knows!
So Doctor Who is now the family business!
Yeah, they’re my publicity machine now, the children!
Sophie Aldred, thank you very much!
Want to talk about Doctor Who? Den of Geek recommends the terrific Doctor Who Forum.